Which would you choose to watch? A film called God and the Devil in the land of the Sun or Black God, White Devil? The latter, playing to anticolonial sentiments that oppose white to black, is more seducing than a story about gods and devils. When I saw the film forty years ago this is how I understood it – insofar as I understood it at all, since my memory is of being utterly perplexed by the film. Seeing it again after that long interval (and prompted to do so by the excellent 15-part Mark Cousins’ TV series, 'The Story of Film: an Odyssey' showing on UK television), I suddenly felt enlightened: this was an extraordinary feature film debut by Rocha. I am minded to think the film has nothing to do with excoriating colonial oppression and lauding revolutionary fervour and everything to do with the human being, at least a landless Brazilian peasant, as a victim of existential suffering. The original title – Deus e o diabo na terra do sol – clearly supports this, while the title White God, Black Devil distorts it.
The film is characterised by an extreme ambiguity, far from the revolutionary certainties with which the film was promoted at the time. In one sentence, the film tells the story of Manoel’s failed salvation at the hands first of a negro religious fanatic, Sebastian, and secondly of the bandit Corisco. In larger terms, salvation is to be found neither in Sebastian’s apocalyptic religion, nor in Corisco’s one-man liberation front, for both lead to death at the hands of both government and traditional church, execution being performed by their mercenary agent of death, Antonio das Mortes who for both the Sebastian half of the film and the Corisco one serves as a ‘diabolus ex machina’ to resolve the story, leaving Manoel running helpless through the rocky wilderness.
It is the Sebastian half that rivets my attention. After the poverty-struck Manoel has been provoked to murder the wealthy Morales, he is convinced that St Sebastian will lead him and Rosa to a promised land so he flees to him in order to become his disciple. It is at this point that ambiguity sets in. While Sebastian's teaching is revealed in the end to be hysterical, wedded to suffering and ultimately murderous, a different story comes through as well. Firstly the images portray a group of the very poor liberated of control by government and church, transfixed by the prospect of salvation.
Secondly, the executioner Antonio has glimpsed this ambiguity for he tells the Catholic priest hiring his services that Sebastian has a pact with the Devil, but adds, "I think he has a pact with God as well."
Thirdly, the film makes a remarkable pair with Pasolini's Gospel According to Matthew: both are filmed in semi-desert landscapes; both use camera pans across peasant faces as Jesus/Sebastian preach; both films make use of Bach to sacralise the group of Jesus/Sebastian and his disciples. Finally, when Pasolini commented that in reading the gospel, he saw revealed a ‘world of the poor available for revolution', the words apply equally vividly to Rocha’s film. Yet there are very large differences as well, for with Pasolini the revolutionary Jesus is crucified, the moment from which his revolution ripples outwards, while Sebastian, now Antichrist, having ritually slaughtered a baby, is murdered at the altar, so that his revolution implodes. But the correspondences between the two films are so startling that I felt one must have inflected the other. Yet this cannot be so. Deus e o diabolo was shown at the Cannes Film Festival in early May 1964, and Pasolini's Gospel at the Venice Film Festival in August/September of that year. Pasolini will have finished shooting his film by the time Rocha’s appears in Europe. It is just possible that Rocha’s use of Bach on the soundtrack influenced Pasolini when he added music to his film, but I feel it is more likely that this is just a coincidence.
I think the common source for both are the ideas of Liberation Theology which in the early 1960s were beginning to gain momentum. An important conference on the subject was held in 1968 but this was after many years of work and reflection with poor communities in South America. The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought (Oxford UP 2000) has this to say on the subject:
"The option for the poor means that liberation theology acknowledges, first of all, that according to the testimony of the scriptures and early church God has always been inclined towards the poor. The Bible shows the poorest of the poor as God’s favoured people. The mystery of the Incarnation of Jesus makes this message even clearer. God became a poor man in a country under foreign occupation, as a testimony to God's own identification with the exploited. Liberation theology does not romanticise the poor, but sees in them a collective prophetic voice, denouncing the injustice of humanity through their suffering. This understanding gave rise to a new ecclesiology, represented in the movement of the Basic Ecclesial Christian Communities which became a model for the church of the poor."
As first presented to us, Sebastian's group of disciples in Deus e o diabo look like a base community, but as the story progresses Sebastian is revealed as a false prophet. What characterised the actual base communities was an engagement by the laity and the poor with the meaning of the gospel – a practice that sheds a vivid light on the community of disciples in Pasolini's Gospel, free of church structures and engaging directly with the message of the gospel as articulated by Jesus.
As a footnote another thread of influence is worth mentioning: Antonio's characterisation as a mythic avenger wearing broad-brimmed hat and long dark coat much impressed Sergio Leone and he echoed the figure in his Hollywood Western, Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) – and since Leone was an inspiration to Clint Eastwood, the ‘Antonio’ concept feeds through into Eastwood's apocalyptic High Plains Drifter (1973) come to wreak vengeance on the corrupt Western town. What is more the figure resurfaces in the portrayal of Rooster Cogburn in the Coen Brothers’ True Grit (2010) seeking to find the killer of Mattie’s father in the ‘land of the Choctaws’, outside the law, fit territory for an Antonio das Mortes.
© Tim Cawkwell 2011